- Emma Goldman Reading Walt Whitman: Aesthetics, Agitation, and the Anarchist Ideal
I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things. Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world—prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.—Emma Goldman, Living My Life
Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal?—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
In June of 1919, the Walt Whitman Fellowship International held a celebration commemorating the centennial of the birth of America’s “good grey poet” weeks before his motherland signed the treaty that would end the first “great war” to connect the modern world. Yet with legislative peace on the global horizon, turmoil erupted at a local Whitman procession. The New York Times reported on the antiwar demonstrations led by “a series of radical speeches based upon [Whitman’s] writings” (“Viereck Breaks Up” 17). George Smith, a local school examiner and the evening’s host, came under fire from the board of education for virtually sanctioning the protests by reading aloud a telegram sent by Emma Goldman from a federal prison in Jefferson City, Missouri (“Must Explain” 2). Smith said that while he read Goldman’s message he never “at any time or place expressed the slightest approbation of her reputed political or social doctrines or views” (“Smith Explains” 18). Predictably, he retreated from any association with the notorious “Red Emma.”
Goldman (1869–1940) was arguably the United States’ most distinguished antiwar voice. She was also the incarnation of the country’s anarchist menace: Jewish, Russian, a brazen champion for the dispossessed, and an infamous preacher of “free love.” Accordingly, certain Whitman enthusiasts—resentful that Goldman’s cohort could criticize US policy [End Page 80] while embracing its poet of democracy—began to test these radical “political” interpretations in the editorial pages of the New York Times. One reader complained that this new bohemian “Whitman cult” was exasperating for the poet’s “older appreciators,” those who valued his verse “for its merits and not for its faults” (“No Boudoir Bolshevik” 12). For James F. Morton, the main “fault” of Whitman’s work was its very availability as propaganda. He explained that “to the fiery propagandist . . . any man or movement outside of the commonplace is necessarily allied to his own” (“Whitman Celebrations” 8).1 According to Morton, Whitman’s poetry was rebellious to austere Victorian norms, but its use as fiery anti-American “propaganda” proved the naiveté of such “political” uses of art. For Emma Goldman, many Whitman enthusiasts faltered here: at the intersection of the artistic and the political. She maintained that Whitman was no “apologist and sponsor of the democratic institutions,” and that liberal commentators failed to comprehend the potentiality he sought in terms like “democracy” and “America” (Goldman, “Walt Whitman” 10). Her project of anarchist agitation instead revealed the way that Leaves of Grass constituted an eternal desire for freedom from the materials of the present, that Whitman’s “art is not only art, but a cause in the world in itself” (9).
This turn-of-the-century contest is only one manifestation of both the popular struggle over “political” readings of Whitman’s work and the stubborn divide between literary art and political life that underwrites it. The boundary has colored scholarly responses to Goldman’s art lectures and essays at large and her readings of Whitman in particular, often leading to their outright dismissal as “agitprop.” This essay resuscitates Goldman for the radical Whitman tradition—the poet’s leftist “reception history” charted most recently in Michael Robertson’s Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples (2008). I intend to build on his perceptive survey of the radical adherents of Whitmanian democracy by examining Emma Goldman’s aesthetic and political work alongside her unpublished and neglected manuscript lectures on the poet in order to demonstrate the centrality of Whitman’s verse and life to the sustenance of her “beautiful ideal” of anarchism. Leaves of Grass was a model for her agitation. It stressed the creative capacity of the reader, providing a literary training ground for...